Cowboy Bebop–Sci-fi, future noir, space western is the best streaming series yet

Review by C.J. Bunce

The new Netflix series Cowboy Bebop, an adaptation of the 1999-2001 anime series, is so good, so well-written, so jazz-filled, stylish, cool, and sexy that you won’t deny it’s the best streaming series yet.  It’s not only the best science fiction series in years, but also solid noir, solid space Western, peppered with martial arts action.  If you loved the space life of Firefly, the dark future Earth noir of Altered Carbon and Blade Runner, and the lived-in future realism of Alien and Outland, you’re in for some great television.  Funny dialogue, actors inhabiting their characters, cool noir vibe, the drudgery of life as a space pilot and exploits of a space bounty hunter.  It’s as good as TV gets.  It’s as good as sci-fi and space westerns get.

But what’s the best part?  The music?  The style?  The characters?  The lived-in sci-fi world?  The dog?  Or the year’s coolest borg character?

Imagine what Firefly would look like if directed by Quentin Tarantino, and you have Netflix’s 10-episode live-action series Cowboy Bebop.  Yes, all those crazy, stylish elements of martial arts action, epic almost operatic choreographed fight scenes, and truly real-feeling happenings between three members of the Jet Black’s ship Bebop (named because he’s a major aficionado of jazz)–all those things make Cowboy Bebop feel like what would happen if Tarantino got his hands on a sci-fi franchise and did it exactly right.

Set in the year 2171, the bounty hunter crew of the spaceship Bebop tries to capture their next high-value bounty when they pick up third crewmember.  Cowboy Bebop stars John Cho (Star Trek) as Spike Spiegel.  With the fighting skill of Bruce Lee, he’s a bounty hunter–in the future they’re called cowboys–in a time when bounties are offered via poor-quality local TV announcements.  As the season gets us ample time to know what makes Spike and Jet tick (a small crew means we don’t get the mere glimpses we saw in the eight-member crew in Firefly), viewers will slowly learn details of Spike’s violent past as a hitman named Fearless.  Mustafa Shakir (Marvel’s Luke Cage) is the show’s larger-than-life cyborg and former cop Jet Black.  Compared to partner Spike’s smaller stature, Jet is a big, powerful, bouncer type (think the star of Marvel’s Luke Cage).  Jet is tough, yes, but also smart and thoughtful, with the wisdom of a savvy former detective.  Daniella Pineda (Jurassic World: Dominion) as Faye Valentine is a cheery addition to the duo, particularly in contrast to the bored tedium of Spike, who goes out of his way to avoid going after the next bounty (aka working).  Faye’s cryo-amnesia leaves her open to near anything new as she tries to learn about her hidden past.

The series has the style of Zen, the retro vibe of the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake, a cool soundtrack like Baby Driver (but this is much better), and comic book-style camera angles.  Keep an eye out for all sorts of noir and detective fiction throwback references.  The role is perfect for Cho–it’s his best performance yet, and that’s saying something for a guy who has done a lot of genre work.  But Shakir creates the best character this year–a struggling dad separated from his daughter, the harder he works, the farther he pushes himself away.  Everyone he trusts betrays him.  He’s fired from the police force for something someone else did.  This is a gritty guy overdue for a windfall.

Running for 26 episodes between 1999 and 2001, the original future noir anime series Cowboy Bebop arrived as an instant classic for the medium that many have called the greatest anime of all time, a Japanese sci-fi Western three years before Firefly.  As good as Firefly was, Cowboy Bebop must be what Joss Whedon was aiming for.

Original anime composer Yoko Kanno (Ghost in the Shell) is back with the soundtrack for the live-action series–the opening credits again uses her song called “Tank!” and it’s performed by the band Shītoberutsu aka Seatbelts.  It’s hard to believe this 23-year-old song isn’t vintage late 1960s or 1970s.  The theme may be the best TV theme song (and best opening credits) since Mission: Impossible, in the realm of memorable show openers like Barney Miller, Perry Mason, The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, and Magnum, p.i.  It’s so cool you’re practically guaranteed not to hit “Skip Intro” each time the next episode begins.

The supporting cast is equal to the show’s stars.  Tamara Tunie (24, Law & Order: SVU) is Ana, a bar owner with her ear to the street who watches after Spike.  Alex Hassell (Torchwood, The Boys) is Vicious, the series’ solid villain, whose only distraction is his long white hair may conjure Jason Isaacs’ villain Lucius Malfoy.  Not only does Russian actress Elena Satine (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Twin Peaks) have a name made for noir, as Julia she’s an interesting, sultry gun moll for Vicious and ex-girlfriend (and femme fatale?) for Spike.  Mason Alexander Park (The Sandman) is Gren, Ana’s #2, who carries on that Michael Sheen vibe from Tron: Legacy.  Christine Dunford (Star Wars Resistance) fills in the blanks as Faye’s complicated con artist mom.  Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) has a key role as Syndicate boss Mao.  Carmel McGlone‘s cool insider Woody is not only Jet’s #1 source on the street and Spike’s favorite person, she’s one of the high points of the series.  Lots of other great characters come and go along the journey, many with only an episode to shine, like Asimov and Katerina, Iron Mink, Hakim, and Ka-Ching.  Only the corgi called Ein doesn’t get enough scenes.

If you need more street cred or gravity to get you interested, consider Adrienne Barbeau plays an eco-terrorist, A Martinez (Longmire, Barney Miller, Quincy, ME) is the head of the Syndicate, and John Noble (The Lord of the Rings, Fringe, Star Trek Prodigy) adds another bad, bad dad to his portfolio.  And consider the great prior work by the directors: Michael Katleman (Quantum Leap, China Beach, Tru Calling, Birds of Prey, Dark Angel, Cupid, The X-Files, Life on Mars (US), Dallas) and Alex Garcia Lopez (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Punisher, Luke Cage, Daredevil, Fear the Walking Dead).  And writer/series creator Christopher L. Yost brings similar action and humor found in his earlier scripts for Thor: Ragnarok, The Mandalorian, and Star Wars Rebels.  

Of course at least half the credit for the success of the live-action series should go to the writers, directors, crew, and cast of the original Japanese anime series, including creator Hajime Yatate.  This is a purely faithful–and often scene-for-scene–adaptation of the anime show.

It’s the closest you’ll get to hanging out in a space diner.  The genre series of 2021 not to miss, Cowboy Bebop is streaming now on Netflix.

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